By 2024, global sales of skin lighteners are projected to reach more than $30 billion. Despite the planetary scale of its use, skin lightening remains a controversial cosmetic practice. Lynn M. Thomas’
new book, Beneath the Surface: A Transnational History of Skin Lighteners
(Duke University Press, 2020), investigates what she calls its “layered history.” Focused principally on South Africa, the book quickly makes evident how closely connected skin lightening is to the history of the United States and other parts of the African continent. Over the course of the twentieth century, and particularly in the context of minority rule in South Africa, skin lighteners have raised thorny debates about race, respectability and self-regard. Thomas examines these questions but shows how class and gender intersect with race to complicate our understanding of who brightens, and why. A complex history of capitalism, medicine, media and technology informs Thomas’ intimate portrayal of these perilous cosmetics. Beneath the Surface
is a deeply social history of a singularly fraught commodity.
Dr. Elisa Prosperetti teaches African and global history at SciencesPo Paris. Her research focuses on the connected histories of education and development in postcolonial West Africa. Contact her at www.elisaprosperetti.net.